Did you know there is a difference between ethical and non-ethical elephant parks and sanctuaries? Are you wondering what makes a sanctuary ethical and what doesn’t? Many things do! And if you’re considering visiting one, but want to make sure you’re not contributing to the harm and abuse of these magnificent animals, then you’re at the right place so keep reading.
Even if you’re just curious and want to learn more, this is probably a helpful read for you. Don’t worry, it’s not loaded with super-charged, pro-vegan propaganda. I, myself, am not a vegan, though there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Times are changing, social awareness is becoming extremely common, especially when it comes to animal rights. As long as it isn’t being shoved down our throats, learning about these topics is a good thing and I think the best way to teach people is by gently telling the truth and sharing personal experiences rather than copying and pasting or repeating words someone else has said.
As you might or might not be familiar with, travelers and tourists visiting Thailand almost always visit an elephant park, or what some would even call a “sanctuary”. The meaning of sanctuary is “a place of refuge or safety”. Most places throughout Thailand advertising meet-and-greets and up-close and personal interaction with elephants and other wild animals are actually mistreating these animals, training and raising them to obey humans with devices and objects in torturous ways for profit.
“What’s wrong with taking photos with an elephant?”
Most elephants, mostly as babies, are taken at a young age and placed into a process called “Phajaan” which means “to crush” and it’s the method used to crush an elephant’s spirit by being beaten with hooks and nails and other blunt objects. Once the elephant fears and obeys the human doing this (ie: recognizes they’re not in charge, but the human is), they’re ready for their “duty” as a trekking or performance elephant. They’re controlled by the use of giant hooks in their ears and other inhumane, painful methods. Carrying multiple humans around on its back, not just once, but several times a day, every day, in Thailand’s heat. Can you imagine?! In order to serve all the tourists who come through, paying for this “experience”, these animals rarely get the hydration, nourishment, and proper care they need to thrive in health and happiness. They’re on the clock. They endure endless mental and physical health problems. When they aren’t working, they’re tethered and chained and confined to one single space, where they literally live, eat, and sleep. This is no life for an elephant.
The Elephant Nature Park is the most well-known, world-renowned elephant sanctuary in Thailand. They’re one of the most respected in the world for their humane and completely ethical rescue efforts. Home to nearly 200 rescued elephants, the ENP is the place to visit in Thailand if you’re interested in volunteering or even visiting for a day to learn about the life and mission at ENP.
Don’t feel bad if you weren’t aware of ethical vs non-ethical elephant parks for tourism. I’m new to learning about this, myself. A recent-me found an old “bucket list” a younger me wrote a handful of years ago and “ride an elephant in Thailand” was scribbled on it. Sadly, it is possible to still do this, but I feel fortunate that this eye-opening information fell into my lap before the trip to Thailand where I would have been ok with this.
Additionally on that list was “hug a tiger”…also a thing you can still easily do in Thailand. After spending a week at ENP, I learned SO much about ethical vs non-ethical and this has opened my eyes to the fact that people like us, who actually love animals, could potentially be unknowingly contributing to the cruelty of these animals by our desire to get close to them when we really shouldn’t be.
Sit down if you’re not already. You may not like reading this part. I learned the cats at Tiger Kingdom are not only drugged, beaten, and controlled with a bamboo stick, but their tendons are also sliced – information you won’t find online. I learned this information in person from someone who knows first-hand how the cats are treated. I’ve removed that item from my bucket list because I now don’t support it, however, the Libra in me (the need to see both sides of every situation) decided last minute to quietly go experience this in person and it’s even worse than I imagined. I didn’t leave feeling good, and I certainly wasn’t proud to be contributing to this all-for-profit tiger park. But I walked away with more clarity on a situation that definitely needs more light shed on it. I ended up ending the tour early after seeing a pregnant cat, moaning with discomfort because of how intense the heat was. Her cage was WAY too small. All of their cages are too small! Anyone reading this probably has a bedroom larger than the tigers’ cage. At first, I assumed these were holding cages while their enclosures were being cleaned but then I also realized they don’t have enclosures! They have a small “yard” they take pictures in with tourists. These are full-grown, 400lb+ cats! They need space to run and the freedom to be a cat. They don’t have that at Tiger Kingdom. I asked the keepers a bunch of questions, some that may have given away the fact that I wasn’t some random tourist, but taking all this information home with me to bring awareness to this.
When I first arrived, they immediately had me sign a safety waiver, which didn’t surprise me as you’re agreeing to enter an enclosed area with a freaking TIGER like in you’re in a backyard with a dog. The next thing I know, I’m being escorted by my arm up to a small cage with chain-link fencing, and there, right before me, is a huge, full-grown male tiger. I’m seconds away from being face-to-face with him, sans fencing. A chill ran down my spine. I’m not afraid of many things, but I immediately acknowledged how completely ABNORMAL this is – on all levels. All this animal has to do is go “You know what? I do what I want…because I’m about three times your size.” and use one of our jugular veins as a snack. One keeper is controlling the tiger, who just wanted to run around and play, but instead was forced to sit, stay, and take photos with me, while the other handler took the photos. Lots of unnatural chaos happening here. The tiger is being yelled at to “Stay!”, and I’m being told to “Smile!!!”…in every photo I have, I look so uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable. Nothing about this is normal. I hate the pictures! I wasn’t here for the photos, despite them unknowingly documenting proof of the tigers’ daily abuse that I’m going to share. Humans weren’t made to coexist alongside these man-eating cats, at least not in close quarters. Little do they realize, that while taking videos and photos of their interaction with this cat, they’re also recording themselves and how the tiger is being treated. I wasn’t allowed to snap my own photos, especially with a pro camera. I got nothing out of this experience except hard facts and a broken heart. I felt horrible the whole time. This cat, who kept walking away from me, just wanted to walk around and do “cat” things and he wasn’t allowed to. I wanted to cry for him. Somewhere in one of the videos, you can probably hear me saying “It’s fine, just let him be a cat…” This park is day and night compared to the Elephant Nature Park!
As an ENP visitor or volunteer, you’re not allowed to wander off alone to the elephants. You’re not allowed to approach them or just walk up to them and hug their trunks. They’re wild rescue animals who have been gifted new-found freedom and by doing that, and monetizing off it, that doesn’t make anyone very “ethical”, does it? The elephants at ENP have been rescued from a life where they were treated similarly to how the tigers are treated.
While taking this “tour” of horrors, I was asking a lot of questions about this park such as how many tigers they had – about 30.
Are they rescued? No.
Do you breed tigers here? Yes.
Do they have tiger breeds not native to Thailand? Yes, even hybrids.
Why are the babies removed from their mothers? The mothers try to eat them.
Do they live in their cages full-time? Yes. UGH.
I had to hide my disappointment from the very start, but I wasn’t doing a good job. After seeing the uncomfortable pregnant tiger laying and groaning on the cement ground, I said I needed to leave and that my taxi driver is waiting for me, which wasn’t really a lie. They escorted me to the exit. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I didn’t feel great about going, especially after spending a week in a place completely opposite to this. But if I’m going to talk about ethical vs. non-ethical, maybe I need to experience the ugly side of this to share what I saw and how I felt to help others understand. I am glad I went, despite how yucky it made me feel. I can confidently and openly share why it’s important to give your time/money to places that actually do care about the safety and well-being of animals.
Ways to tell if a “sanctuary” is ethical:
Read their mission statement. What do they do there? How do they obtain these animals? How do they treat the animals? Are the animals free to roam or are they being exploited and forced against their will to pose and “perform” for tourists? If you’re able to interact with animals with almost no boundaries, then you’re probably unknowingly contributing to their cruelty. Always best to do your research.
This is my effort of spreading the message and if this convinces at least one person to reconsider visiting a for-profit elephant or tiger park while on their next trip to Thailand – or anywhere – then it was worth it. The bottom line is, if you love animals, especially wildlife, then show them the respect they deserve and simply leave them be. 💚
Tips for volunteering at Elephant Nature Park for one week.
And now back to this. If you’re reading because you follow me, or just stumbled on this because you’re looking for information on how to make the most of your time at ENP, then keep reading. I have some helpful tips for you.
One major tip, above all, would be to consider planning your trip around Thailand’s fire season, where they burn all their crops from approximately March til May. The climate is quite smokey and if you’re prone to asthma, you won’t be the most comfortable doing anything physical. And if you’re like me and go while sick already, it just gets worse. No fun. Thailand’s new year water festival is in April, and the lantern festival is in November. FYI.
I recommend a 7-day stay. You’ll learn a lot more and you get a one-of-a-kind experience.
When you pack for your stay, they have a list of things on their site they recommend bringing. Just about all of them are helpful. I didn’t end up needing a flashlight, but extra towels and personal toiletries are a must. You will be showering daily as you will get dirty and sweaty. Elephants also give muddy kisses so…
I would also advise bringing a ton of non-fancy clothes, things that are cotton and “breathe” easy in that hot weather. You will also get sticky from cutting down banana trees. You get muddy from walking around in the terrain. Some of the shifts require closed-toed shoes, but you can pull off flip-flops for some other duties. Do NOT forget sunblock. Bring at least one long-sleeved shirt. They have water bottles there you can buy, but unless you’re going to reuse one, also bring your own water thermos. There was a fridge in my room, so assuming all rooms have one, buy a stockpile of drinks and snacks from the cafe and stock your room fridge for midnight snacks and to stay hydrated. I know one main question in the back of your mind might be “What’s the wifi situation?” …there is wifi in the rooms and the common areas, although, if you’re in the common areas with all the other volunteers and daily visitors, that wifi will be used up! So plan to use the wifi in the early morning or late at night, or if you really need it, then use it back at your lodge. …or just unplug and be present because how often do you get to do this?! Hats are helpful. Pants and shorts, not just one or the other. At the end of the trip when you’re packed up and leaving, they leave you the option to donate old towels and shoes, which is what I did. Feel free to email me with any questions or info not covered here. I’m more than happy to persuade anyone who may be considering a trip to ENP!
And if you’re cool enough, you’ll be invited to the “secret” bar down the road after hours. Lots and lots of cheap, cold beer. 😁
For just a few hundred USD, the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai will put you up for a week, including three meals a day, lodging, activities throughout the day after your small morning “shifts”, plus private transport to and from your hotel. A bonus: all the local volunteer guides there are so awesome and I think we happened to have the funny ones for the week.
All their meals are vegan, and there’s a buffet set out, daily, three times a day, all you can eat. Even if you’re not a vegan or vegetarian, you’ll find yourself well-fed and eating VERY healthily. Again…it’s a buffet and the dishes are fantastic.
The volunteer “shifts” are so fun, it doesn’t feel like work at all.
You’re around amazing, like-minded people from around the world.
There are also a large number of other rescue animals on the property.
There’s a cat sanctuary where you can go and hang out with cats between your shifts.
There’s also a whole tribe of rescue dogs that you can take for walks.
Cheap cold beer.
Cheap Thai massages every day.
Ummm…….none? Sometimes the weather is really hot. That’s all I got. All pros.
So really, this place feels like “camp elephants”. You make friends with the people in your group who come from everywhere. You make and share experiences. The level of “work” they have you do is very moderate, and if you’re limited physically, you’re not expected to hustle. You get a first-hand look at what it takes to care for so many of these animals. From working in the elephant kitchen to scooping poop (yes, seriously, it’s nowhere near as bad as you might think), to cleaning their food and water tanks, you’re helping this place stay home to these animals. You learn their stories and get to witness how silly AND intelligent these animals are. While working, these curious creatures like to roam around and see what you’re up to, so there have been many moments where I was told “Kelli, move aside!” because I didn’t hear a 5-ton mammal, walking up right behind me with her trunk in my face. All of us were so mystified to just be in their presence. Every day we would just watch them, walk to the river, swim, fountain themselves with their trunks, walk out as a group, powder themselves with dirt, eat, and use their trunks to literally peel bananas faster than I can, and even learn their individual personalities….so wild! If you’re looking to complete your trip to Thailand or Chiang Mai with a wildlife/elephant experience, THIS IS THE PLACE. Do your research and make sure you’re visiting someplace that actually is ethical. They do single-day and 7-day visits.
You’d be contributing your time towards something honorable. A whole week felt like two days. I would, and will, do this again. In the meantime, after what I’ve learned and with my own experiences, I feel called to now bring some awareness towards the efforts for the welfare of all wildlife, starting with these tourist attractions in counties where animals don’t quite have as many rights as they should.
How to fight against this? STOP GOING. STOP PAYING MONEY TO THE WRONG SANCTUARIES. If you’re fascinated by wild animals, the best thing you can do for them is to respect them and leave them the hell alone. They don’t need hugs or selfies. They need and deserve their freedom.
For more information, please visit: https://www.elephantnaturepark.org/enp/visit-volunteer
Lastly, and finally, here are some highlights from my week at ENP last month. I look back at these photos and I still can’t believe I got to do this!
If you’re wondering if you’ll have any interaction with the animals during your visit to ENP, the answer is YES. Everyday. In some way, you definitely will. You’ll probably even become desensitized towards the end of your week and they’ll walk right by you, and you’ll walk right by them without feeling the need for yet another photo of them or with them because you’ll already have so many. Your phone and your heart will be full.